New committee will evaluate per capita and financial sustainability


How well does the per capita system of funding serve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

Is a per-member apportionment a viable approach for a denomination that’s continuing to lose members (down 43 percent over the past two decades)?

If per capita reserves are depleted by 2020, as is expected to happen, what are the implications of that for the Office of the General Assembly?

And what’s the financial sustainability of the denomination overall?

Those are among the questions that a new special committee will be discussing in the months to come – the outgrowth of questions about national church funding bubbling up at the 2018 General Assembly.

Assembly co-moderators Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann announced this week that they had appointed 15 members to a combined Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability, led by committee co-moderators Valerie Young, synod leader and stated clerk of the Synod of the Sun, and Laura Mariko Cheifetz, deputy director of systems and sustainability for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and a member of the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky.

That committee held its first meeting via conference call March 19 – with its members already expressing concern about the amount of work they need to get done before they are supposed to report on the financial sustainability piece by Dec. 31.

“The fact that we are just starting now hamstrings us quite a bit,” said committee member Scott Lumsden, executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery.

This special committee is an outgrowth of a series of actions taken by the 2018 General Assembly.

First, the assembly approved a recommendation from the Way Forward Commission that a committee be created, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2019, “to provide a comprehensive resource projection analysis and summary assessment—in conjunction with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation and representatives of all other agencies—of national church assets and income for financial sustainability review.”

The idea: this information would be made available by the end of 2019, so other groups – such as the 2020 Vision Team and the Moving Forward Implementation Commission – would have access to the information before those groups face deadlines in February 2020 to submit their own recommendations to the 2020 General Assembly.

A comment the assembly added also raised the question of whether the PC(USA) could provide shared administrative services in a way that’s more transparent about the costs involved, encourages a greater level of buy-in among the agencies and perhaps is more efficient.

Second, in response to an overture from the Presbytery of Newton, the assembly voted to approve the creation of a team to review the current per capita funding system “for financial sustainability into the next ten years.”

Jeanne Radak, the presbytery leader for Newton Presbytery, is among those serving on the special committee. Radak said the overture emerged from the work of a group the mid council created to look at its own funding system – a group that raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of per capita and wanted the national church to explore alternatives.

Per capita is the per-member apportionment set by the General Assembly to support the work of the national church. The General Assembly per capita rate is $8.95 per member in both 2019 and 2020, an increase of just over 15 percent from the 2018 per capita rate of $7.73 per member.

That rate was a significant scaling back from what PC(USA) stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson originally proposed – an increase of 39 percent from 2018 to 2019 and another 7 percent increase in 2020. That proposal received considerable push-back from mid council leaders, who said the church at the local level simply couldn’t afford it, and about three weeks before the assembly convened, Nelson announced a reduction in the proposed increase.

Nelson had, however, said that the original budget proposal reflected the costs for the Office of the General Assembly to do the work he believes the church is called to do. And he has warned that the budget the General Assembly approved will exhaust the reserves in the per capita budget by 2020.

The Office of the General Assembly has developed a narrative budget that tries to explain to Presbyterians what per capita is and what work it supports in the national church.

The discussion during the March 19 meeting revealed that the members of the new special committee still are trying to get their minds around the scope of the work. The co-moderators, in combining the work into the charge of a single special committee, are conveying that “they want us to look at this systemwide,” Young said.

Another difficulty: Mike Miller, who had been the acting chief financial officer of the PC(USA), A Corporation, died unexpectedly March 12 of an apparent heart attack.

According to Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk of the Office of the General Assembly, Miller had been in the midst of contacting representatives of the six PC(USA) agencies to begin gathering information about financial sustainability and revenue projections. Rice said he’s not been able to determine how far Miller got with that work before he died.

The committee also discussed other realities – including that mid councils have a range of approaches for assessing and collecting per capita themselves. Some congregations don’t pay per capita at all, while others give generously, said committee member Paul Helphinstine, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee.

During this initial meeting, the committee set up two work groups: one on per capita and the other on financial sustainability. When committee members raised concerns about their ability to get all the work done on such a tight deadline, Rice raised the possibility of submitting an interim report and asking the 2020 General Assembly for more time.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included concern that Kerry Rice, the PC(USA)’s deputy stated clerk, expressed during the special committee’s meeting that the Board of Pensions might not be willing to provide information regarding financial sustainability and revenue projections. Rice later said by email, after discussing the matter further with Board of Pensions President Frank Spencer, that there had been a misunderstanding involving an email from Miller, and that the Board of Pensions “stands ready to support the work of the committee and affirms the charge of the committee to look at the financial sustainability of the national church.”